New Orleans Saints cornerback CJ Gardner-Johnson (aka Ceedy Deuce) is quite an NFL player. Gardner-Johnson took a massive step forward in his sophomore season, tallying 66 tackles with 52 solo tackles, 5 tackles for loss, an interception and 13 pass defended in 2020.
It should come as no surprise then that Gardner-Johnson made NFL.com’s Top 10 coverage players according to NextGen stats:
Passer rating allowed: 73.1
Catch rate allowed below expectation: -8.1%
Tight window pct: 21.4%
Target rate: 20.2%
Average separation: 2.9 yards
Targeted expected points added: -15.9
Gardner-Johnson is listed as a safety, but he spent the vast majority of 2020 as a slot defender, lining up in that location for 542 snaps and just 21 as a deep safety. It seems the Saints have recognized that’s where he is at his best, as the alignment disparity was even greater than it was in the previous season. They also realized he’s best when using his physicality to his advantage, playing off coverage on just 28 percent of snaps after breaking 60 percent the season prior. His average pre-snap cushion dropped from 6.6 yards to 4.7, a product of playing in the slot more often. He allowed just seven receptions for 68 yards while recording an interception and four other passes defensed on 14 targets in press coverage in 2020. It seems Gardner-Johnson found his fit in Year Two and is poised for even more in 2021.
As we explained in our year-in-review piece, Gardner-Johnson has indeed shown versatility in his NFL career thus far:
A versatile hybrid safety is the new normal for NFL secondaries, and Gardner-Johnson fits that mold lining up all over the field. Slot corner was the most common position, where he up for 685 plays out of his 1,123 total snaps. He also lined up as a box safety for 103 snaps and a surprisingly 95 snaps at defensive line. His snaps lining up on the line of scrimmage is a testament to his ability to blitz the passer where he had four quarterback hits and a sack in 2020.
He really can do it all, and we should look for even more improvement in 2021. His stats should continue to grow, and CJ Gardner-Johnson could find himself climbing NFL.com’s list this time next year, especially if “punches thrown by opposing wide receivers” qualified as a “NextGen” stat.